Someone will have to pay for this, Orta thought, looking at his phone, not realizing that someone would be him, not knowing that the cops would exact their revenge through a campaign of targeted harassment, that within a year he’d be in prison and facing constant abuse, his enduring punishment for daring to hold the police accountable.
…Orta has reported constant abuse and harassment from correctional officers since he’s been locked up. He claims he’s been threatened, beaten, poisoned.
…Orta is shockingly thin. His cheekbones jut from his pale gray skin. His hair — buzzed short in pictures from before his arrest — sticks wildly from his head in clumps.
The guard who led him out says, “Jesus, Orta, couldn’t find a comb?”
“You won’t let me tie it up!” Orta replies.
…“She always does this,” he tells me. “I won’t eat in here, so she’s worried I’m starving.” The circles around his eyes are so dark, the whites of his eyes shine as if from the bottom of a hole.
…A correctional officer approaches and tells me the microwave is broken. I see its power cord pulled from the wall and jammed behind a toaster. I plug it in, push a few buttons, and it buzzes to life.
“I told you it’s broken,” the CO says.
I’d crossed an invisible line. The door of the microwave reflects back our distorted image. I can see the CO standing behind me, waiting.
When I return with the still-frozen burgers, Orta explains: “They fuck with my food. They know I won’t eat what they give me, not since Rikers.”
…“Eat, inmate,” a CO commanded, banging Orta’s cell with a baton.
…“We’re not going anywhere until you eat,” a CO said and entered Orta’s cell. He hit Orta with his baton, hurled slurs, promised a citation for refusing orders. “How many days in SHU you want?”
…Later, in depositions, the affected would say their stomachs were on fire. Some felt pain in their chests and worried they were having heart attacks. Others were so dizzy they couldn’t stand. They writhed on the floor of their cells. Some claimed the guards walked by, watching, laughing, flipping them all the bird. The stench of vomit and feces permeated the cell.
No one was taken to the infirmary.
…Orta says he’s been threatened, called racist names, beaten. He talks about these incidents in a measured, almost casual way. He’s been locked up before and possesses fluency in a prison’s violent rhythms. But there’s one form of harassment he describes at length and with visceral anguish. In the process of inspecting his cell, the COs routinely crush to dust his Pop-Tarts, chips, ramen packets. This is the food Deja sends him, the only food he feels safe eating.
…I’m able to review the records of Orta’s citations and grievances filed while he was in custody. The stack follows a conspicuous pattern. Orta is cited for petty offenses until the number of tickets triggers the loss of privileges, including access to phone calls or the commissary, often for 25 or 30 days. As soon as the penalty expires and his privileges are restored, the ticketing cycle begins again.
…Vi was supposed to be a solution. If people didn’t believe that police brutality existed, you could record it — the technology was in everybody’s pocket. How could a jury deny proof, an act of killing? And yet they did.
In New York state, a grand jury returns a true bill of indictment if a bare majority — 12 of the 23 sitting jurors — believes there’s enough evidence to proceed to a criminal trial. Daniel Pantaleo’s grand jury sat for nine weeks. Ramsey Orta was the first of 50 witnesses to testify. His video, along with the medical examiner’s report, provided clear evidence that Pantaleo had used an illegal chokehold on Garner. A “chokehold” is defined in the NYPD patrol guide as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe,” which hinders breathing. Orta’s video showed that Pantaleo had continued to apply pressure to Garner’s windpipe after Garner was on the ground, subdued, and had repeatedly said that he couldn’t breathe. Still, the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.
The ruling further reinforced the reality of the tremendous authority police officers have to determine a necessary use of force.
…Why is video evidence not enough in any of these cases? How is it that we can argue and erase what can be plainly seen with our own eyes?
…In 1989, the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor established a “reasonableness standard,”
…Jurors in excessive-force cases now are given explicit instructions to think from “the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” keeping in mind that the nature of police work requires these “split-second decisions.” When the officer testifies that they acted out of fear for their lives, the Graham v. Connor decision requires jurors to try on that alleged fear and to view the incident through the eyes of the officer, not the victim. This is a powerfully empathetic, imaginative act.
Humans are inherently, psychologically motivated to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and fewer things will create more painful cognitive dissonance than watching those sworn to protect shoot and kill a civilian who posed no threat to them. Our minds protect us, often without our realizing it, by latching on to narratives that can reconcile such tragic opposing facts. It is easier to see the victims as one-dimensional criminals, threatening the fearful police, and therefore deserving of whatever comes their way.
And so it becomes easy — for jurors and the public alike — to trust authority and leave the dead confined to the margins of our imagination. …They can’t testify. They can’t tell us of their fear for their lives.
Orta and his supporters are caught in a loop. What he needs, he can’t get. His current lawyer has stopped returning calls but isn’t officially dropped from his pending appeals, making it very difficult for a new lawyer to take up his case. Support from activists, who in 2014 lauded Orta as a hero, has dwindled. In theory, Orta could pursue litigation against the Department of Corrections for mistreatment, but petty abuses don’t count for much legally. They don’t matter enough.
“Even if you could prove the abuse, what injunction could we win?” Lewis says. “The law already states that COs are not to beat people up gratuitously. So what can you say other than: please follow the Constitution.”
De Gennaro sighs. “This is a long way of saying that there really isn’t a lot of recourse for people who are in custody and are sustaining recurrent harassment and retaliation.”
…”Do you wish you could go back and do it differently? Not take the video?”
I’d waited a year, known him a year, before I asked this question. He looks away from me and lowers his head.
Finally he says, “What does it matter?”